NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands next to the U.S. flag on the moon with Earth hanging in the black sky above during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. (NASA Photo)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — An American rivalry with China could stoke a new space race in the years ahead, a space policy official and the last American to set foot on the moon said here today at a session marking the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo missions.
But it may not play out the way the U.S.-Soviet space race did, said Scott Pace, executive secretary for the White House’s National Space Council. Billionaire-backed space efforts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin could well play a leading role.
“China has billionaires, too,” Pace said at the ScienceWriters2018 conference, held at George Washington University. “China has a growing commercial space sector that is not simply People’s Liberation Army guys in new suits, but a commercial industry also emerging out there. And so they are not merely national security competitors, but they’re also potential commercial competitors — as China is in many other areas.”
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, who accompanied the late Gene Cernan to the lunar surface in 1972, voiced concern that America was already in “another Cold War” with China. Pace wouldn’t go that far, however.
Even though U.S. military and intelligence officials have voiced concern about the potential for China and Russia to target America’s space assets, Pace said “we’re not in a Cold War environment.”
“There is a global competition at stake, but it’s a much more multidimensional competition than the Cold War was in the 1960s,” Pace said. “It is happening on multiple levels.”
Pace and Schmitt agreed that the U.S. space effort has suffered under repeated strategy changes in the aftermath of the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew, which led to the retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011. The space program’s objectives have shifted from a return to the moon, to a focus on near-Earth asteroids, to a renewed emphasis on Mars, to the current plan for moon missions that eventually point the way to Mars.
Such shifts have left the impression through the years that the U.S. government “has not been a reliable entity in space,” said Schmitt, a Republican who served one term in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1983. But Pace said commercial involvement in the current push to cislunar space could help make the difference this time.
The White House’s current plan calls for handing over space operations in low Earth orbit to commercial ventures in the mid-2020s, freeing NASA to put the pieces in place for a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.
“We’ll see humans in orbit around the moon by 2024,” Pace said.